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No Expectations Cover Reveal (with bonus Easter egg)

Several months ago, before even the holiday season, Miya Kressin finished her newest novel No Expectations.

I am so sorry you haven’t been able to buy it yet.

Spoiler: it’s so good.

I mean, I knew Miya could write. One need only check out the Asylum Saga to see how well Miya puts words together. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that she’s among the finest prose stylists I’ve ever encountered.

What do I mean by that?

At a word and sentence level, her prose works. And you might say, well, okay, but isn’t that always the case, but no, it’s not. You’ll find a lot of authors whose prose is competent. It gets the job done, keeps the sentences going and the pages turning.

Miya’s words and sentences are something else. Her stories are great, for sure, but there’s an intricacy and craft to her actual writing I find astounding.

With the Asylum Saga, Miya’s prose was working on several levels. Roseen is a complex character with a complex story and complex motivations. There’s a heft to the proceedings; we didn’t call it a Saga for nothing, after all.

In No Expectations, Miya has a ton of fun.

Now don’t get me wrong; I know Miya had fun writing Asylum; I was there for a lot of it, and watched it happen.

But here’s the thing; Miya isn’t just an author I work with. She’s a dear friend of mine, and has been for more than a decade. We met on MySpace and are friends on Facebook, and we’ve played virtual tabletop games and exchanged holiday presents. I’ve never met Miya in person but I know her voice and have heard her laugh.

And that’s what No Expectations is like.

It’s wonderful and funny and entertaining.

It’s also crazy hot and steamy.

Miya sent me a finished draft back in probably October now. I’ll be honest — from August of 2015 through the end of 2016, I was about useless for everything that wasn’t my day job, and even there I feel like I had performed it better in previous years. My wife read it straightaway, so that she could start editing it. There were a couple setbacks there — file losses and transfer weirdness.

And me? Like I said, useless.

But when I was able to start getting back to things, No Expectations was fun. That’s what I was struck by. It’s Miya at her best, great writing and amazing prose and all, but it’s also so much fun. I found myself grinning, laughing. I found myself adoring Julie and aspiring to identify with Reed.

Those names make no sense to you yet, but stay tuned. They’re going to.

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Vellum: The Best Thing to Happen to Authors Since Kindle

If you’re an author interested in publishing your work, there are a few key tools you’d do well to invest in, but I think among the best and simplest is software called Vellum. It’s kind of a combination between a word processor, a WYSIWYG book layout designer, and an ebook generator. It’s a simple, elegant way to create a professionally designed ebook without the headaches of proprietary software and trying to run Terminal-level commands like KindleGen and whatever international-but-not-market-standard format ePub demands this month.

Amazon announced the Kindle platform, store, and device in 2007, and while I was intrigued by the concept, my enthusiasm was tempered by the actual experience. The first generation Kindle was like a Fisher Price publishing toy, with a weird shapes throughout, and its second generation wasn’t much better. Their ebook store was nascent. Were ebooks worth ten dollars?

In 2010, however, Amazon released its third-gen Kindle, the Kindle Keyboard, and it was a revelation. Its design was revolutionary, rather than evolutionary. And by then its Kindle publishing platform had gained some legs.

In fact, it had progressed enough that I showed the device to my editrix and told her, I think I can do this. I can make something like this.

And I did. I had Windows, and I downloaded MobiPocket Creator, and I had enough basic HTML experience left over from MySpace that I was able to roll the code for an ebook.

And that’s what I did. For, like, nearly ten years. I would take Word documents, strip out the editing, put them in Adobe DreamWeaver, recode them line by painstaking line, run MobiPocket Creator in a virtual machine on my MacBook Pro (on which I’d designed the cover in Photoshop), and then save the resulting .prc to a common folder I could upload to Kindle. And then used Calibre to convert for Apple and B&N and Kobo.

If you look at the above and scratch your head, or think it sounds complicated, you’re not alone. It sucked.

Around last year, though, I heard that .prcs were going to stop working as well. And truth be told they’d never worked very well, anyway. So I started looking into alternative ways to build ebooks.

And I found Vellum.

I fell in love with it. Mainly because it made my life easier, made my business more efficient, but there were a few key ways it did so.

One Program, All Formats

Lay out one book, entirely, and when it comes to generating ebooks you can get everything from a .mobi for Amazon to a generic .epub for any bookstore, plus files for Apple or Kobo in between. You only need to generate once and you get every format, and you can rest assured they’re all in good shape.

It’s WYSIWYG

That’s “What You See Is What You Get.” Coding sucks. It’s all brackets and weird letters and ASCII and character codes. Not so for Vellum. Import from a Word doc and it pulls literally everything in. In any other program I had to hand code “curly” quotes — those are the ones that look curved, rather than straight like plain text renders. But it goes farther than that; in one of the books I recently worked in, one of the characters was producing music for a band from Greenland or Iceland or Finland. One of the countries that puts slashes through Os, that kind of thing. And it just pulled them in.

Prebuilt Templates, Extended Customization

I’ve never counted, but when you import a book, you can use any one of like, nine or so pre-built ebook styles. But each style offers further customization of things like ornamental breaks and chapter headings and block quotes. And let’s be honest, when you’re dealing with books, unless it’s literally part of the story somehow, the best design is basically invisible. No reader or review I’ve ever seen has ever commented “I mean the story was pretty good, but did you notice those ornate dropcaps? Intense!” — which is not to say ornate drop caps aren’t an option. It’s just to say that Vellum offers exactly as much customization is useful to remain professional. Which I think is good; I’ve seen way too many uses of Comic Sans and that Avatar font. When restricted to simple, elegant choices, the ebooks that are generated remain simple and elegant.

Great User Interface

It’s simple and easy to navigate. You know where to put your cover, where to enter whatever information is useful, and how to create new chapters and sections and parts. What’s more, some quick right-clicking around means you can manipulate them pretty easily. Want a group of chapters to collapse among one part? Done. Want to convert a section of text into a block quote, or insert an ornamental break? Yep. Easily accomplished.

So those are why I love it, and it’s reasonably priced. I don’t remember how much it is per individual book generated or for multiple, mainly because I laid out one book and had such a great experience that I was like, hell, even if I only want to generate the Kindle version that experience was still worth $200 (or more). And as soon as I started laying out that first book I knew I was going to be republishing literally everything from Exciting Press anyway.

I think there’s other software that might do the same. Like Scrivener. I’ve heard great things about Scrivener, which I think costs $50 (it’s been a long time since I bought it), but I’ll be honest: the first time I booted up Scrivener I was intimidated by how overly complicated it seemed. I know a lot of writers who swear by it, so it’s definitely worth checking out, but I prefer software that gets out of my way as I’m doing what I want. I don’t want to lay out a book chapter by chapter and have extra notes and images and all those things — I tend to just write chapter after chapter in Pages, sometimes with the rest of a book outlined beyond the scene I’m writing. That’s all I want. Using Vellum, I was able to paste that Pages file in and recreate the same formatting, and the ebooks generated are simple, elegant, and perfect for all the devices I would expect readers to find them on.

Because that’s ultimately what I always want; to create the best reader experience. Vellum has, so far, been the best and simplest way to achieve that I’ve seen, and while $200 might seem pricey, I think achieving that easily is priceless.

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And Who Are Our Gods Now, America?

 

That’s the official trailer for Starz’s American Gods. It’s amazing. I went straight to Facebook to share it but realized I had more to say about it.

I remember when American Gods came out. I was there.

Not just in the sense that I remember when it was published. No, in the sense that, while double-checking for accuracy, I found Neil’s post on the publication at his journal, so many years ago, and it was a memory-lane trip.

I first shook Neil’s hand at those Magnetic Fields shows. My best buddy and I had tickets we made sure were front row. The show was divided into two sets, between which the audience was different, as well, so we had to leave our seats and mill about. As did the Magnetic Fields. As did Neil.

And I remember being there at the Bottom Line and passing by Neil and wanting to tell him what a huge fan I was and how much I’d loved Neverwhere (which I’d read because I’d heard it had been optioned by Jim Henson Company) and Stardust, but I went into utter fanboy catatonia. I went into that state where you want to say so much and all that really happens is your mouth moves and you vaguely, detachedly remember to be grateful you’re not actually making any noise, because who knows what it would be.

I told Claudia Gonson how much I’d enjoyed the performance of “Born on a Train,” and she whisked me, along with another fan, over to Neil, and requested that he guess which of us was a fan of Neil’s and which was a fan of the Fields. Neil’s response was a comment on how unfair a question it was, but it gave me the chance to put out my hand and say, “Neil. I’m Will–”

And before I said another word Neil lit up. “Oh, you’re Will! From the Well!” (The Well was an online forum, think a pre-pre-pre-Facebook, back in the day. There were several groups dedicated to Neil and his work, and I posted fairly often.)

It was awesome.

That was over the weekend. That Tuesday, Neil had a signing on the official publication day of American Gods at the Borders World Trade Center. My buddy, my sister, and her then guy all got on a train at like 10 am and arrived at the Borders before noon — and proceeded to sit there for several hours until the actual signing, which started at 6 pm.

I was first in that line. If you read that above post from Neil, he’d already signed myriad books for HarperCollins, but still I like to think that my copy of American Gods, made out to me, was the first one signed on that tour.

(It’s a better story, after all.)

Less than three months after that above post was posted, the Borders World Trade Center was no more. The World Trade Center was no more.

In a very real way, at least for me, the world was no more. Six weeks after the World Trade Center fell, I moved away from Manhattan. I returned, nearly a decade later, but it no longer felt like the Manhattan I’d once known and loved.

And maybe that’s not unusual. Maybe Manhattan is like real love, like a marriage — something you choose, every day, something you can’t help, every day, always, so you grow with it, together. And if that changes, it’s like an ex — somebody you used to know. Someone you once loved, and have fond memories of, but whom you encounter one day and can’t help noticing how different you both are.

Watching that trailer reminded me how big and awesome American Gods was. I remember reading it the first time and thinking it was okay, but being somewhat disappointed. Like I’d wanted something I’d never defined and then hadn’t gotten it.

And then I re-read it, and then, some years later, re-read it again, and each time I do realize how big and awesome I realized it was only in retrospect. That it was bigger and more awesome than I could at first appreciate.

I’m getting a similar sense from that trailer. That it’s going to be huge and weird and in ways not like the book but in the end exactly what it needs to be.

It was a novel about an identity crisis of faith that came just a few months before America’s crisis of faith.

It doesn’t feel like the show is far off, and some days lately it doesn’t feel like America is far off. It feels like we’re right now living in the midst of a war between old gods and new ones —

And I’ll not spoil the novel. But suffice to say I can’t wait to see how the show turns out.

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Better Investments for Authors than ISBNs

If you want to buy ISBNs in the US, Bowker (the only purveyor of said, but we won’t even start with the monopoly in effect) charges the following:

  • $125 for 1 ISBN
  • $295 for 10 ISBNs
  • $575 for 100 ISBNs
  • $1500 for 1000 ISBNs

Obviously this rewards buying in bulk, and my guess is for a corporate publisher like Random House or HarperCollins, they probably have even better deals in place, purchasing tens of thousands at a time.

But you’re not a corporation. You’re an author, with one book you want to sell. You’re looking at that single ISBN, which would be fine except as far as I know you can’t fully personalize that option enough to list yourself as publisher if that’s the one you chose. Also, as you read more, you’ll learn more about Bowker’s proposed best practices for ISBN usage, like that each version of your book should have its own (which to me renders the whole “My book has one unique 13-digit identifier” argument moot, but like I said, none of the arguments have made sense or convinced me thus far). So you need one for the print version, and even though you don’t need any for digital versions, Bowker says you need not only another but another for each version. So you’ll need one for the Amazon (.mobi) version, and another for the version for other stores (.epub, most likely). But I mean  why stop there? You might at some point need a .pdf, and who knows, maybe someone will want as plain .txt for some reason, and hey you wrote the thing in a .doc, and don’t forget the semaphore  and smoke signal versions!

Even for one book, the proposal is to invest that $300, because out of the gate you’ll need three (print, .mobi, .epub), and you’ll probably write more books, or . . .

But you’re looking at this as an investment, which is because, I propose, you’re looking at writing as a potential career. You want to write lots more books, and that $575 option is looking like the best bang for your buck.

Here are better ways to spend that money.

A 4k Monitor

A lot is made about how good videos and games look on 4K monitors, but you know what it really makes a difference for? Text. Simple black letters on a white screen. I’ve found it reduces eye strain, and you can get some awesome, large monitors for a fairly good price on Amazon.

A Mac

MacOS is great software. Pages is a terrific program that lets you save a document on your desktop and access those latest changes via your iPhone or iPad without actually taking any other steps. It’s like magic! But that’s not all; you can get to the iBookstore through a distributor (like Draft2Digital or Smashwords), but if you want to go direct, you’ll need iTunes Producer, which Apple unfortunately makes only for the Mac. Also, I think some distributors require you have an ISBN for very, very niche venues. You can get an entry-level Mac mini for $500, or you can check Apple’s online refurbished section. I just got a great mini with better than entry-level specs for a barely-more-than-entry-level price.

Vellum

Vellum is a Mac-only ebook formatting program that’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. It’s wonderfully visual and lets you accomplish complex graphics and layout options with simplicity. What’s more: it’s free to use, and the only charge comes when you actually generate your ebook, at which point it’s $10 per ebook (and I believe that’s all formats), or you can just buy a license that lets you generate unlimited ebooks for $200.

Setting up an LLC

I noted some people think that an ISBN somehow confers professionalism or legitimacy. I say find a small-business lawyer, set up a consultation, talk to them for an hour about what you’re doing and how you want to do it, get their counsel, and with them set yourself up as the small business you are. Because all indie authors are at the very least small presses whose lists happen to be books by a single author (and who knows, maybe one day you’ll want to work with other authors). Prices will vary by lawyer fees, but when I founded Exciting Press, I worked with a lawyer who advised me about business structures, helped me file, and worked with me on a relatively standard, easy-to-read agreement I could use going forward, and the full price for all that was less than Bowker wants for 1000 ISBNs.

A Good Editor/Cover

I’ve seen some bad covers. I’ve seen places that offer pre-made covers for, like, $150. I think if you want a professional-quality cover you need to work with a professional designer, which I’d wager would start around $300. Editing? A professional content edit (both typos and story structure) would probably go as high as $1500 or $2000, but I think if you shop around, you could probably manage both for that $1500 you wanted to give Bowker, and believe me it’s better spent going back to the creative community and when your book stands out, it won’t be because of a  13-digit number.

That should give you a good start.

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No, You Still Don’t Need an ISBN for Digital

Almost four years ago now, I wrote on my own site about ISBNs: “Why You Don’t Need an ISBN (and What You Should Invest in Instead)”

That post still gets a lot of traffic, and I see a lot of people on Twitter and Facebook still sharing it. Some ask me whether it’s still the case.

A week or so ago, the ever-anonymous Data Guy, who collaborates with Hugh Howey on Author Earnings, released a new report. February 2017 Big, Bad, Wide & International Report: covering Amazon, Apple, B&N, and Kobo ebook sales in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

It was interesting to dive into. It covered the big four digital retailers in what I think is the big five English-language markets.

Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. Kindle, iBookstore, nook, and, well, Kobo, respectively. Data Guy sums it up thusly:

So this time, we rolled up our sleeves and basically went for the whole enchilada:

  • The top five English-language countries
  • The fifteen largest ebook stores
  • 750,000 top-selling ebook titles, in all genres and categories.
  • All of it calibrated against 700,000 points of raw, unfiltered daily sales data, from over 20,000 distinct ebook titles across all 15 stores.

When we were done, we were looking at the most comprehensive international picture of English-language ebook sales available anywhere. And now, we’re excited to share it with authors everywhere around the world.

That seems a pretty big swath of the digital market.

There are a couple of things that those digital retailers all have in common. They’re all part of big corporations: Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Rakuten. Together they possess, what, like a hundred years of bookselling experience? Barnes & Noble has been in business since around the seventies, I think. Amazon started in the late 90s. Apple and Kobo entered much later; Apple with the iBookstore at the launch of the iPad, and Kobo in 2009 in within Canada’s Indigo ecosystem.

Know what else they all have in common?

None require an ISBN for you to list your ebook for sale in their respective marketplaces. In fact, Apple is really the only one that requires any sort of specialized or proprietary anything, and that’s because in order to upload a book directly to the iBookstore, you have to use Apple’s iTunes Producer software, which is Mac only.

Should you get one anyway?

I mean, that’s a decision for you to make, but I still haven’t seen a compelling reason. Usually, the arguments for ISBNs fall into four categories:

Future-Proofing

Because what if Amazon goes out of business!? This argument basically posits that associating a unique identifying number with a particular version of a book has a positive benefit for the life of that version. And I mean, I guess. But to me it feels a pretty flimsy case for an at-least-$250 investment. I don’t know your financial situation, but me, if I’m spending north of $250 on something, I like for that something to be more of a need than a want.

Access-to-Market

Because access to some niche not covered among those mentioned in that block quote up above is apparently exceedingly important. But hey, maybe people want to list their books as “#1 Books-a-Dozen Bestseller.”

Discoverability

The argument here seems to be that no matter where your book is, a reader would be able to look it up by this convenient 13-digit number, as if any reader ever has looked up a book by its ISBN. “Excuse me, my bookclub is reading 573-689078540542789480-2589026. Do you have that in stock, or can you order it for me?”

The Appearance of Professionalism

I’ve read authors argue that having an ISBN makes them seem more “legitimate.” Because it’s what “traditional” publishers use. I say if you’re relying on a random 13-digit number for the appearance of either professionalism or legitimacy you’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Now, provided, all this would be moot elsewhere. In the US, ISBNs are divvied about by Bowker, who uses a bulk pricing system. Want one? Last I looked, one is $100 and has limitations like you can’t list yourself as publisher (and there went that whole professionalism/legitimacy thing), which means you’re automatically looking at the next tier, which is $250 for 10. So $25 per. Up to $1000 for 1000.

Me, I go back to necessity and intention.

Do you want your book in bookstores?

If so, you shouldn’t be trying indie anyway. If you want your book in print and on retailers shelves, get to querying. I wish you luck.

Do you want a high quality ebook for sale on all major digital platforms?

In that case, you don’t need one. If you want one anyway, that’s one thing. But you shouldn’t think you need one.

So I stand by the thoughts in that original post. You don’t need an ISBN for your ebooks, and you’d arguably do better investing the money you’d spend on one in something else instead. More on that next post.